Hong Kong drivers rarely smile at the Toyota Prius these days. They did when the second-generation hybrid was launched here in September 2003, when early adopters raved at the novelty of regenerative braking down Garden Road and the smugness of idling on electric next to gas guzzlers in tunnel traffic. Here was a fuel-sipping ride that made you look as eco-conscious as Al Gore, as hip as a Hollywood star and also earned first-registration tax discounts on Gloucester Road.
Now there are about 1,800 Priuses all over Hong Kong, and more than 300 in government service, says Toyota dealer Crown Motors, but even fans of the kooky whirrer have started to say the Mark II seems spartan and 'so 2003'.
Police officers testing Mitsubishi's innovative Electric Vehicle in Hong Kong this summer say that the new plug-in four-seater was a smoother drive up The Peak than the force's 94 five-seater Priuses, and a new generation of little petrol-driven runabouts such as the Peugeot 107 (109 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre) and Toyota iQ (99g/km) are starting to challenge the hybrid's vaunted 104g/km of carbon dioxide halo.
When the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster proved this year that electric cars can look stylish, Toyota had to sex up its Prius. And it has.
Named Japan Car of the Year at the recent Tokyo Motor Show, the third-generation hybrid has been made more aerodynamic on smaller 15-inch wheels to save gas. The Mark II Prius has a drag factor of 0.26CD but the latest model rated 0.25CD, thanks to more angular lines and streamlining. The test car also gets a smaller opening in the upper front grille and flat surfaces on the front and rear bumper corners to help cut turbulence in the wheel arches.
It's still a geeky looker, but Toyota helps you to highlight your environmentalism with blue sidelight tints, a blue logo badge for Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive and flashier single-sealed-unit combination headlamp housings. You also get 'trafficator' indicator lights on the wing-mirrors, strong foglights and even raindrop sensors on the windscreen. The high rear restricts parking, even with loud sensor beeps, but all-round visibility is fine in traffic.
A larger lower grille improves cooling efficiency and the rear light clusters are flashier, but there is little opportunity in Hong Kong traffic to stretch the new model's engines, which dealer Crown Motors says bang out the combined power of a 2.5-litre block.
Toyota has replaced the old 75-horsepower, 1.5-litre engine that produced 111Nm of torque witha 97-hosepower, 1,800cc block that whops 142Nm with VVT-i. The electric motors have evolved from 500V and 67 horsepower to 650V and 79 horsepower to give the car a combined 134 horsepower, nearly 25 more horses than the Mark II.
The test car's engines are also 33 per cent lighter and Crown Motors claims fuel consumption is 25.25km per litre, 10 per cent better than its predecessor. Carbon dioxide emissions are down to 89g/km, which is as good as you can get in Hong Kong beyond the iMIEV and MyCar electric rides.
There is poke under the new hybrid's eco-prissiness, and the marque's sprint claims of 100km/h in 10.4 seconds (half a second quicker than current Prius) seem about right in fleeting fast-lane moments bordering on fun outside Sha Tin. The steering feels lighter, and the continuous variable transmission feels so Lexus-smooth that you might have to check the dashboard monitor again to see what gear you're in.
The interior seems glum without a sunroof, but is roomier in the front and back and sufficiently plush to tempt you out of any under-used Nissan Elgrand or Toyota Alphard. Six-footers will still have to stoop to alight from the rear, even though the highest point of the roof has been moved 10cm further back, but the 445-litre boot extends to 1,120 litres for three large golf bags, the dealer says. The ride is child-seat friendly and comfy in the back. The plastic trim doesn't make you look cheap and washable door and seat fabric 'reminiscent of genuine leather' could resist a puppy's moult.
The test car's control ergonomics take a while to get used to. The flying buttress-like instrument panel is integrated into the central armrest, but the position of the front door's elbow rests seems high. I don't need my glasses to read its buttons, however. Audio, air conditioning and hands-free Bluetooth controls are on the steering wheel, which now telescopes as well as tilts, and the tiny gear knob is neat in shifts. The new model's head-up display is activated on the dashboard and shows the speed and hybrid system's status in a reflection in the windscreen and with a luminescence that defies the glare of the sun, but it could distract at night.
The information instrumentation slit screen in the dashboard tells you how you are driving and in which mode: EV for when you are on electric; the nannyish Eco, which the dealer says 'moderates the response to the accelerator to keep emissions as low as possible'; and the Power mode, which 'optimises accelerator response' like a normal car. You can click from mode to mode and between screen data with touch tracer display buttons on the steering wheel.
The test car's computer seems all-knowing: that it's 10.11am, that we've a full 45-litre tank of petrol and that we're averaging 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres (42mpg) on the Kwun Tong Bypass. Its fuel-sip analysis program has also awarded me another 'little green car' for eco driving. Overseas testers say they have achieved 3.8 litres to four litres per 100 kilometres using a 'pulse and glide' technique of stepping on and off the gas. Greenie drivers might whoop at this potentially sick-making technique, but there's a Pac-Man pile of little green cars on the test car's monitor and the dealer's rep nods his approval under Lion Rock.
Such a 'score' is not hard on this two-lane track, however; you just keep within the speed limit, anticipate the road further ahead, as you might with a manual shift, and try not to jerk the hybrid about.
Yet this Mark III's eco-driving electronics seems potentially dangerous in the competitive grind of a Hong Kong commute. Set high on the dashboard, just below road level, the monitor's engaging graphics are less of a distraction than those on the Mark II's larger screen, but improvements in their detail and scope can tempt you into clicking the monitor display switch to the right of the wheel for more information under your nose when your eyes should be on the road.
In Choi Hung the computer explains how economically we are driving, that our average trip speed has been 24km/h, the engine's current Eco status and past and present records of the car's fuel-consumption. But just as I rescan the monitor for any best 'little green car' score to beat, it is almost 'Game Over' in Diamond Hill as a dual-plate Alphard cuts into the test car's stopping distance.
Still, the new Prius has won a five-star safety rating in Europe with nine airbags and lots of electronics (see At a Glance). The dealer also says the battery pack is sealed and 'all high-voltage circuits are protected from casual contact'.
Basic servicing costs the same as a petrol saloon, at about HK$3,000, the dealer says. At HK$262,992, the basic Mark III proves Priuses are no longer science fantasy, but the Mark II is still perfectly adequate for eco-feelgood in compact Hong Kong and its second-hand prices vary from HK$138,000 for a 2005 version to HK$240,000 for a 2009, ideally with dealer service records. Collectors can even get a 2002 Mark I for about HK$60,000.
You'll only need a new Prius in Hong Kong if you feel the need to say you have one. And if you buy this latest version, please keep your eye on the crowded road, not your dashboard 'score'.
AT A GLANCE: Toyota Prius
What drives it?
A four-cylinder, 1.8-litre, 97-horsepower petrol Atkinson-cycle engine and a 650V electric motor with continuously variable transmission on 15-inch wheels.
How fast is it?
It can sprint to 100km/h in 10.4 seconds and has a top speed of 179km/h, the marque says.
How safe is it?
The Prius gets a five-star Euro NCAP rating and has nine airbags, active headrests, brake assist, traction control and steering-assist, vehicle stability control and hill start assist. The bumper structure is designed to minimise the risk of leg injury, with impact-absorbing materials inside the front bumper and beneath the radiator, Toyota says.
How thirsty is it?
It drinks just under four litres of fuel per 100km (70mpg), the marque says. We averaged 6.7l/100km in Kowloon traffic.
How clean is it?
Toyota says it spews 89 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
Available: HK$262,992 for the Luxury model and HK$294, 711 for the Super Luxury version with leather seats (both after first registration tax discount) from Crown Motors (tel: 2866 1020).